Should The New York Times tell you when politicians are lying? (Updated)

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The New York Times' Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, wants you to tell them whether they should disclose in stories when subjects are clearly lying about something. The New York Times is unsure at present whether it should do this. (This was an unfair knee to the balls: see update below)

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about. ... Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?

Dear New York Times. You may tell the truth about it when people lie. You may even be a "truth vigilante," as you Brisbane rather strangely put it. You will be rewarded with subjects that hate you, and readers that love you. Pick a side!

UDPATE: New York Times' National Legal Correspondent John Schwartz tweets: "Nota Bene: Public Editor doesn't speak for NYT, works "outside of the reporting and editing structure"


  1. “…when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another”. Because true facts and false facts should have an equal right not to be corrected.

    1. ‘Correction’ is a form of epistemological violence, used by ivory-tower intellectuals to privilege their beliefs over other, equally valid, ways of knowing… In fact, if you support ‘correcting’ politicians to arrive at ‘truth’ you fully embrace the sordid history of the rationalization of imperialism and oppression by appeal to dogmatically held(but inherently problematic) ‘universal’ enlightenment ideals.

      True facts. Now just name-check an obscurantist frenchman and we are set to go.

      1. ‘Correction’ is a form of epistemological violence, used by ivory-tower intellectuals to privilege their beliefs…

        Every time the terms “epistemological violence” and “ivory-tower intellectual” is used together in a sentence, a kitten is killed by the Irony Machine, and the late RAW receives another download from Sirius.

    2. I don’t think that’s the question they’re asking. They’re not talking about choosing between a false statement and a true statement; they’re talking about giving everyone’s statements equal scrutiny. Will they catch everyone’s lies equally, given that reporters are human and subject to confirmation bias?

      I think that’s a valid concern. I don’t think letting everyone’s lies go unchallenged is the right response to that concern.

  2. That is just sad. Congrats NYTimes.
    Thanks for Judith Miller and the useless wars.
    When you take the word “facts” out of quotes you’ll have made a major step.

  3. How is this even a question? All facts should be checked and corrected if necessary. The only fair and objective way to report the news is to report the whole truth.

  4. “Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?”

    Oh Grod.  If it weren’t for the fact that I have no expectations for American journalism these days, I think my soul might have died a bit there.  Good thing they’ve lowered expectations to the point where this statement actually doesn’t come as a surprise.

  5. I’m speechless. Somebody is (in public, name attached) suggesting that noting baldfaced lies might interfere with ‘objectivity’? Seriously?

  6. Here’s a little good news: currently, almost every one of the 41 comments on this nyt page is a well-written response asking for the truth. Several object to the use of “vigilante”. Typical example: “I think it is a sad commentary on the state of American journalism that you have to ask this question.”

  7. Nope.  What’s wrong with a system where politicians, corporations or anyone else with an agenda can lie to the press knowing full well the press won’t call them out on it and report it as “truth”?  Seems to have worked out fine so far.

  8. Hands up everyone who thinks any politician anywhere never lies.

    Anyone? Nope? 

    Okay, hands up everyone who wants the NYT to be a huge mass of redundant lie-checks. Anyone?

    1. Well, there are different ways to go about this. If, for example, Rep. Alice says, “A cut in corporate taxes will help the economy,” this is a debatable point and I don’t need the NYT to write an entire article on fiscal policy to fact check it every time it is repeated.

      However, if Rep. Bob says, “The loan to Chrysler cost taxpayers billions of dollars, wasting their money,” I would like the NYT to write something like “(Note: Chryler repaid the loans with interest in 2009; taxpayers came out about $1bil ahead on the deal.)”

  9. So many reasons why newspapers are failing, encapsulated right in this post:
    1. The fecklessness of asking its readership how it should do its reporting.
    2. Not knowing whether its their job to report the truth or not.
    3. Whininess about how it might be hard.
    4. The use of the term “truth vigilante,” which implies that the idea of a reporter who tells us when people are lying is so bizarre that it requires a neologism.
    5. The specific use of the term “vigilante,” which insinuates that this is something outside the normal bounds of behavior (which is true only if you’re most worried about losing your invitations to Washington DC cocktail parties).

  10. The best part is the phrase “Truth Vigilante”. 

    It only means anything if you accept that media should in some way cede journalistic moral responsibility to the authorities, and that taking that upon ourselves is in some sense ‘extralegal’.

      1. Even Politifact sucks. They said Jon Stewart was lying about FOX having uninformed viewers because GEE I DUNNO SOME OF THOSE CLAIMS WERE ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING AND SOURCES DISAGREE HURRRRRRRRRRRRRR

    1. Views differ on shape of earth

      K. Brockman
      Speaker Gene Ray today introduced a bill to formally affirm the House GOP’s belief that the earth is cube-shaped. Some professor from Harvard University who thinks he’s better than you disagreed. During our phone conversation, I was able to transcribe the following words: “… roughly spherical with oblate characteristics due to gravitational …”

      The bill is expected to pass drawing support across party lines.

    2. The answer is to fact check early in the campaign season. If a politician keeps repeating a lie, then print in the story that the politician repeated a lie to the crowd, and cite the truth. If the politician and his/her supporters wants to keep repeating the lie, he or she will have to provide evidence to back it up.

  11. Most of the comments after the article are spot on, mostly to the effect of “why is this even a question?”    Wild speculation and conspiracy theory lends itself to a sceneario involving lots of pressure on the journalists not to bite the hand that feeds them, so to speak.

  12. If it comes down an actual fact, when something that is either yes or no then they should tell us the truth. If it’s a word or an assertion that is on the fence things get sticky. When it could be interpreted many ways by one word it’s hard to pick the right word. But when there is no gray area it’s their duty to tell the truth.

  13. FFS. The New York Times should begin listening to and taking notes on NPR’s On The Media. Bob and Brooke don’t take no crap. They call it out when they hear it, and they are not meek about asking pointed follow-up questions to people who are spinning or distorting or just lying.

    Absolutely the worst theme song of any radio show that I can ever remember, but it’s refreshing to hear them cut through the crap.

    1. Or, I don’t know, the Daily Show? TDS and TCR have LONG been cited as having better-informed viewers than the general public. And all they have to do to achieve that is to TELL US WHEN PEOPLE ARE LYING.

      The NYT would literally be a better paper if it just reported everything Jon Stewart said.

        1. And yet another example where he’s telling the truth.

          He shouldn’t have to do that.

          Unfortunately, virtually nobody who SHOULD have to do that, actually IS.

  14. Maybe they could avoid directly accusing politicians of lying by using a few well-chosen key phrases:

    “I believe in the sanctity of marriage,” said Mr Gingrich, in a statement that was not in accordance with reality in the strictest sense.

    “I have no connection with this PAC,” declared Mr Romney, who seemed reluctant to meet this reporter’s eyes as he spoke.

    “I intend to close Guantanamo and end abusive treatment of prisoners,” announced Mr Obama, possibly with his fingers crossed behind his back.

    “The Democrats are European-style socialists who want to destroy America,” claimed Governor Perry, in an utterance that was clearly conventional hyperbole sanctioned by a long tradition of exaggerated political discourse and not intended to be taken at its literal face value. 

    1. But then you would be lying about the lies. “Possibly with his fingers crossed” is clearly not true. Obama speaks openly and confidently about preserving human rights before signing bills that take away human rights. In all these cases you just have to write that the facts don’t match the spin.

  15. but that is why the mainstream press doesn’t matter any more. sure brave reporters get the real news…there are a legion of heroic reporters who put their lives on the line, but the media organizations fail them with their political pandering. this dichotomy, this hypocrisy is why the internet and the new journalism of real people bypassing the corrupt network of “experts” in providing commentary and and analysis is what is relevant now. We are all experts and we all are capable of detecting bullshit. this is media evolution taking place in real time.

  16. I’m confused why this is even a question. I never went to J-school but it seems to me if a politician lies, you just expose the lie by citing the fact….

    “Mitt Romney claims Social Security is bankrupt and needs to be privatized. However, the congressional budget office…. ”

    Easy. You’re not editorializing because you’re citing your damn facts, and also exposing a lie.  Isn’t this what you learn in Journalism 101?

    1. But being a stenographer for Mitt is easier, and his financial sector sponsors will buy ads to help privatize SS.

  17. I don’t understand the example that the publicedictor gave here. Anyone with half a brain understands that the Romney quotation (as much as I hate to defend him) was not intended to be interpreted literally; for his audience it is actually a pretty concise way to assert what he feels is wrong with Obama’s approach. Having a reporter refute the statement on literal grounds, instead of giving more facts to help deconstruct its rhetoric, is kind of weak and irrelevant.

    1. no! NYT readers are god damned idiots, and ‘real news’ shouldn’t keep it’s traditional format urging people to grow and learn about the world but instead embrace snark, because we need to pander more to the type of feckless idiots who watch cable news!

  18. I..uummmmm….maybe I’m being naive here, but isn’t the job of journalism to report FACTS and expose error? You know, the 4th estate, not beholden to any man…blah blah blah. Oh, I guess I should’ve removed my rose-colored glasses to be able to see the corporations and advertisers pulling the strings a long time ago.

  19. Um, yes.  The failure of journalists to properly do their jobs has led to politicians who seriously don’t care what bullshit falls out of their mouths because no one is going to tell them to just stop it, already.

  20. Maybe what they should do is just throw a bunch of random stuff they make up into the mix. What the hell, if the veracity of the people they report on is something they seriously wonder if they should question, maybe they should just give up all pretense of objectivity and go for pure fiction. Could we tell?

  21. Wow.   This makes me lose the will to live.   Now I expect the sun to rise in the west tomorrow, because sunrise in the east is just a “fact.”

  22. This is pretty typical for Arthur Brisbane, except in that he’s asking the question at all.

    I have a question though, maybe someone here knows the answer. Is this a traditional policy of the New York Times, or was it a shift in policy at some point? If it did change, was it organic, or the result of a particular push by some group of people?

  23. The very fact that the NYTimes has to even ASK if they should call out lies and prevarication as a fundamental part of their reporting shows how far out of touch with what the role of  a free press is.  They should just close up show and stop wasting resources.

  24. Just because you can’t correct EVERY lie, doesn’t mean you should not correct as many as you can.  Let’s face it, the hard right already hates and vilifies the NYT.  Spread as much truth as possible!

  25. The first five rules of journalism from the Elements of Journalism:1. Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth.2. Its first loyalty is to the citizens.3. Its essence is discipline of verification.4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

    If the truth is clearly that a person is lying, why wouldn’t you tell that truth? I’m amazed that you asked this question. Perhaps a refresher Journalism 101 course is in order.

  26. “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” Clearly, lies are news and fit to print.
    Edit: Why would you print the lie in the first place? If a politician lies in a speech or interview, all you need to do is not print the story at all unless it is a story about the lie. Don’t give them the page space if they don’t deserve it.

  27. Actually, they work largely for their advertisers. American newspapers are heavily dependent on advertising revenue rather than cover / subscription fees. That’s one of the reasons they’re in so much trouble.

    It’s only in their financial interest to report as much truth as keeps readers looking at the ads :-(

    1. If they can sell ads for companies who’d like to sell their products to readers of the New York Sack of Horseshit, they can change their masthead.

      Times readers really do like to think that the Old Grey Lady is still reliably the paper of record.  The thing that has bothered me the most about the last decade of politics is that the liars don’t even try to cover their tracks, or even come up with convincing falsehoods anymore.  It’s one thing to mislead your readership unknowingly, and it’s much worse to do so deliberately.  But when your audience knows you’re lying to them, or simply repeating falsehoods without correction or fact-checking in the body text of the same article, then they will stop reading you, and your ads.  It’s probably too late for the Times to stop hemorrhaging its educated readership, if it has to resort to asking this question.

      Even suckers don’t like to be treated as suckers, and even the ignorant hate being treated like fools.

  28. The very fact that they feel the need to ask this question shows the low level of media standards.  The media, surely, have the duty to report the truth if they are aware of it.  This may annoy some of those they interview/ report on but then such people should expect to be called if they lie or otherwise produce false ‘facts’. 

    There should be no question of whether a media outlet (be it newspaper, TV or otherwise) has a duty first to their consumers (readers in the case of the NYT) or those that they are reporting on.  So long as they act within the law they should make best efforts to report the new truthfully, accurately and fully.

    1. This is a really good point. About the law. When “the press” is sued for libel or slander it claims the higher standard of “actual malice” which protects the journalists and the corp they work for. The truth is their defense. So if they are knowingly printing lies without correcting them (or getting someone to correct them in a response) they are abdicating their ability to be a journalist and a “press entity.”

      If they are no longer a “press entity” (an FEC legal term) then they should lose that “actual malice” defense as well as other press protections and benefits like access to events, protection of sources and tax implications for donations in the form of individual coverage of Canididates. Fox News’ coverage of only republicans would be treated as a donation to the candidates for tax and reporting purposes. (and IF MSNBC did it too, they would get the same fine)

      I’m talking here about using “the truth” as a legally defining activity for journalism and for corporations as a Press entity. Yes, it can be tricky, but right now they are already using something to define when they are “the press” and when they can be sued. If I wanted to keep that higher standard of libel, telling the truth should be the regular price someone has to pay to keep it.

      This could mean Fox loses the moniker of “the press” and gets treated as a lobbying firm or a PR firm for the GOP. A blogger who tells the truth gets to be “the press” and get protections, a corporation who doesn’t does not.

  29. Years ago comedians used to regularly take the piss out of Pravda (lit. The Truth) for repeating without apparent shame some of the most ridiculous lies of the USSR politicians. Now the same is true of NYT, Fox, et al. 

    The saddest thing of all though is that this joins a long line of satirical topics that now apply to the USA as much as Russia: the TSA and travel “security”, gulags and Gitmo, rendition, torture, the 4am knock from the Police, ….

  30. By asking the question, they are admitting that they have knowingly printed lies and sold them to their readership without any form of clarification.

    It’s a pretty shameful admission for a newspaper: “we sell you lies”.

  31. There’s a fundamental ignorance in all of this: “If we don’t report good news, they’ll stop giving us access!” The journalists that want to protect their sources have become the problem, that such a question should ever be asked suggests it’s worse than what we believed…too many people sharing beds. What a cluster.

  32. I just want to grab them and shake the stupid out of them.  “YOU ARE RUINING EVERYTHING!” I would scream.

    Anyway, YES, I want journalists to do fact checking.  Fact check both sides.  Objectivity preserved.

  33. This is so depressing I’ll have to raise the dosages on my medications.

    Colbert did say “reality has a well-known liberal bias”. Of course, since that’s a fact, the NYT probably never published it, instead publishing some politician’s lie-filled press conference along with a line like “some people, however, disagree”.

    Why bother fact-checking? Everyone’s entitled to their own version of the truth, right?

    Yet the right calls the left “relativist” & “with no sound basis for their morals”.

  34. I think this is a thornier issue than most commenters here believe. The example used in the column is, “on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,””. Then it points out that he actually hasn’t ever apologized for America. 

    Should the NYT say this, every time it quotes Romney? Romney would argue his statement is perhaps a summary of Obama’s implicit rhetoric, rather than a direct quote from Obama. And suddenly any clarification by the NYT becomes dangerously close to political editorialising. When things are in quotes, it gets very, very hard. And when a paper starts correcting, in even slightly marginal cases, it can be very easy to lose the objectivity on which news articles rest their authority.

    1. This is a really good point. I was surprised that the column’s example was something as nebulous and complicated as whether or not the president is in any sense “apologizing”. There are plenty of truly demonstrably false statements out there for the nyt to bring to light.

    2. it can be very easy to lose the objectivity on which news articles rest their authorityI honestly think we are better served with a wide variety of news sources who unashamedly wear their loyalties on their sleeves, than with a handful of news sources who piously proclaim a hypothetical “objectivity”.

  35. Although, obviously, if someone states an out-and-out irrefutable lie then that should be pointed out. And I suspect the NYT would. I think here the problem is more clumsiness on the part of the NYT readers’ editor in making the argument…

  36. Why does’t the NY Times and all newpapers investigate a story, state the facts, and not print anything said by our politicians.  How about publishing a newpaper that prints the truth about everything.  How about checking your stories and see how many are not true, and which ones lean to what side of the aisle.

      1. By quoting them and then quoting the truth.  Which would double the length of every article, but at least they’d be doing their job.

  37. The first rule of Journalism Club is…
    You never call a politician on lying.
    The second rule of Journalism Club is…
    You never call a politician on lying.

    If you do expose  a politician (who is not going to be quickly indicted and head to prison), you and or  your organization will never get another interview or any help from that politician, his office, or possibly anyone connected with his party.

    1. And so then what?  Exactly what purpose do you serve if you have plenty of access, but no integrity?

      That’s not journalism.  That’s PR.

  38. It’s kind of difficult because other reporters will take what’s printed in the Times as fact, even if it’s not.  For instance Obama stated during the previous campaign that in one year “GM only sold 6000 cars in Korea”, when in fact they have 13% of the Korean market via their Daewoo subsidiary (now named GM Korea).  The Times did a fact-check article much later that refuted that, but papers even today continue to quote the 6000 figure.  

  39. The difficulty is in distinguishing “lies” from impossible things which the politician actually believes, the latter being far more dangerous in the long run.

    1. I don’t think that’s a problem here. A newspaper article doesn’t have to make any judgement about the motivations of the speaker, the article can just note that the claim made in the statement is false.

      1. “Representative Smithjones said, ‘These tax cuts for the wealthy will reduce unemployment, just as surely as 51 is the largest prime number.’ 51 is in fact not a prime number, and there does not exist any largest prime number.”

      2. “Let me be exactly clear about what health care reform means to you,”the president told residents of the Garden State. “First of all, if you’ve got health insurance, you like your doctors, you like your plan, you can keep your doctor, you can keep your plan. Nobody is talking about taking that away from you.”
        -Barack Obama, 16 July 2009

        How exactly would you fact check and report on that quote??

        1. I agree, there’s an art to sliding between the verifiable truths, to the point where verifying them would distract from the actual point being made.  The real message is often “we don’t care about the facts; we’re going to force it through our way as a display of power”.  Hence the humiliating phrases like the Defense of Marriage Act.  

  40. Hmm, the article asks for reader opinions and says “Please feel free to leave a comment below”, but the actual comments section of the article is closed and says “Comments are no longer being accepted.” And this is only THREE HOURS after the posted date and time on the article.

  41. This sounds to me like NYT had already made up its mind, and is using this sort of thing as a kick in the pants/call to action for future journalism. 

    As a general rule, when a public post like this asks a question where one response is absurd (in this case, responding “No, journalists should not correct erroneous facts”) it’s basically just a rhetorical device. The only real question is if NYT will actually follow this up with a serious change in policy.

    1. Considering what Arthur Brisbane has written in the past, I wouldn’t interpret it this way. It may be  that he’s writing this article in order to point to some divergence in opinion, and to use that as an excuse to hide behind “objectivity”. Note the weak examples and the derisive language.

    2. I find very little support for this thesis in the text of the editorial in question.  In fact, Brisbane is pretty clearly trying to make the truth look somehow dirty or illicit by calling fact-checking “truth vigilanteism.” 

  42. That this should even be considered worth asking sums up why I let my NYT subscription lapse a long time ago.

    Their recipes are still OK though.

  43. The NYT (and any news reporting outlet) shouldn’t even have to ask, it should be required to highlight the lies presented by politicians, corporations and advertisers.

    There’s a word for wrong-facts:  Fiction

  44. I thought the whole point of journalism was to go after a story, and try and find the truth. Which I expect would involve checking facts. Ipso facto (pardon the pun) there is currently no point to journalism, which is part of the reason it is dying off.

  45. I totally agree Tom Whipple above. I think the Public Editor brings up a
    really interesting question that most of the commenters here and on the NYT blog
    seem to have whiffed on completely.

    What are the guidelines for determining when a fact warrants checking? No one is addressing the Public Editor’s example, which is a reasonable one.

    What do you do to fact-check a statement like that? It’s essentially saying that the president’s past rhetoric implicitly acknowledges that U.S. policy was wrong and makes implicit apology for it.

    This can’t really be fact checked… even though it appears to be an assertion of fact. The fact-check would be something like, “While the president has never literally said, “I’m sorry for past U.S. policy.” some conservatives believe that several speeches had this implicit meaning.” But is this really useful? How demonstrably true/not true does an assertion need to be in order for it to be a fact capable of being checked, versus simply more rhetoric to be parsed.

    I think it’s a valid question. There’s obviously a gray area between statements of fact and strongly worded assertions of opinion, and this area is actually the proverbial wheelhouse for most politicians… So, smart folks, what are some simple guidelines to determine when an assertion is a statement of fact and when it is a statement of opinion? The rubric of “if it can be verified, it’s a fact” is great for teaching primary schoolers, but it doesn’t lend much practical guidance to journalists.

    I think this could have been a useful conversation…

    Perhaps it’s just the crappy title and presentation, but I would have hoped boingboingers (if not NYT commenters) could have cut through the chaff and found something interesting to discuss.

    1. Any such guidelines would almost certainly not be simple. I don’t see, however, why that should be a showstopper. Journalists are humans, humans intelligent who have spent a lot of time and effort learning how to do reporting. They ought to be sufficiently expert in their field to deal with a moderate level of ambiguity, and their (presumably even better at that) editors are supposed to catch it when they make mistakes and bad judgment calls.

    2. an apologetic tone is not an apology, unless you’re a passive aggressive jerk with an obvious agenda AND find apologies a sign of weakness. 

  46. No one has spouted the punchline, “When their mouths are open” yet?  Sheesh, people come onnnnnnnnn…..

  47. Follow-up post from Brisbane:

    EDIT: Also, just because it came up as an example: I thought Obama’s speeches and foreign travels in the year after his election were clearly apologizing for American activity during the Bush administration, whether he actually used the word apology or not. Making amends, making peace, restoring relations, pointing out to the world that, yes, many Americans think the actions done in our names during the Bush administration were deplorable and grounds for apology to the world they were inflicted on, because they never should have happened and we’re sorry they did.

    1. That’s not what he was doing. See, you can’t actually apologize for what the right hand did, when the left hand is still beating the hell out of the human spirit.

  48. has the whole entire world gone CRAZY?  Jeez Louise, now I understand why “May you be born in interesting times” is considered a curse in China.

  49. It’s fairly obvious (at least in Australia, where I type this) that many news outlets simply repint politicians’ press releases with little critical input, and very rarely bother to investigate what’s behind them. We’re all familiar with the reasons: control of access, costs, competition to “break news” and so on. There is also a uniquely Australian problem (a bugbear of mine which is why I can’t help mentioning it, although not strictly relevant for NYT) – defamation laws that punish journalists for “lowering the public standing” of high profile figures. It seems to me that the NYT is simply taking the step of attempting to validate this approach with its readership. If validated, I dare say it will provide a significant opportunity for cost savings and news turnaround times. Also, I suspect that more deeply there is the issue of breadth of readership and advertising revenue. The past ten years has completely changed the way that people consume news – in particular the traditional format disctinction between broadsheet and tabloid no longer applies in the online market. Interestingly online consumption of news is fairly consistent whether visitors are going to a “broadsheet” or “tabloid” site – people spend more time reading about things like sex, celebrities and inflamitory or contraversial content than other stories. The NYT is probably doing some market research before increasing its competitiveness in the new environment. All that out of the way, I agree it’s the end of civilisation.

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